CNN's Pearl Harbor Mistake

Fact & Fiction

Watching CNN over the Pearl Harbor Holiday Weekend (previously known as Memorial Day Weekend) reminded us at History News Network that there may just be a reason historians so often hold the media in contempt. In the middle of a story about the Disney Pearl Harbor blockbuster up popped some black and white footage of gunners firing their weapons into the sky. According to the CNN reporter, this was"actual footage" of the Pearl Harbor attack. That is, this was not like the footage in the rest of the story that came from the Disney movie. THIS WAS REAL!

Viewers who were paying attention might have wondered. The shots looked too perfect to have been taken during the crisis. They were perfectly framed. You could almost swear John Ford was behind the camera shouting directions to the photographer to be sure to make the gunners look as damn heroic as possible. About the only difference between these pictures and those from the Disney movie was that Disney's were in color.

Actually, John Ford was behind the camera. Shortly after the Japanese attack the War Department hired him to direct a movie about Pearl Harbor. On a back lot at Fox studios in Los Angeles he recreated the scene, shooting the one-sided battle as dramatically as possible. The scene had to be recreated because there were hardly any pictures from the real attack. According to film historian Rick Decroix, there exists less than one minute's worth of actual footage (most of which was shot by a doctor trying out a new movie camera; he caught the Arizona being blown up). All the rest of the footage you've ever seen was shot by Hollywood. (Ironically, Ford chose not to use the real footage of the sinking of the Arizona, instead opting to recreate the scene using a small model.

CNN's story was not the first mistakenly to pass off Ford's movie footage as the real thing. Decroix says he knows of at least two documentaries that did so as well a decade ago during the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

The Ford film was called December 7th and ran eighty-three minutes. It was never released as a full-length feature film to theaters, however. Ford did such a good job accurately depicting the carelessness of American preparations that the War Department decided showing the movie in full might damage public morale. After difficult negotitations, the government finally released a half-hour abridged edition of the film featuring the dramatic recreation of the Japanese attack. John Ford won an Academy Award for the movie. In 1991 it was distributed on videotape in its original version for the first time.

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